Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of November 25, 2002
Tinkering with life bypasses ethics
Author provides moral compass, scientific facts in bioethics debate
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
For centuries, people have been selectively breeding plants and animals.
An easy example is when scientists and farmers choose certain boars to mate with certain sows over generations to produce leaner pig meat.
Few question the ethics of this. So is the genetic engineering of plants and animals significantly different from human experimentation, and if so, why?
What about the cloning of human embryos for reproductive or therapeutic purposes?
Is this ethical?
Should human beings attempt to do whatever they have the means to?
If you want to expand your knowledge about genetic engineering from a Catholic perspective, take a look at Genetic Engineering, Christians Values and Catholic Teaching, a new book by Paul Flaman, a professor of Christian theology at St. Joseph University College.
In it, Flaman examines the moral implications of cloning, eugenics, genetically engineered food, biological warfare and stem-cell research in the context of Christian and Catholic teaching on creation, sin, redemption and incarnation.
The 138-page book, released last month by Paulist Press, is intended as a resource for science and religion teachers from Grades 7 to 12, as well as university instructors in bioethics and other fields.
It could also be helpful as reading material for university or college students, including nursing students and seminarians.
Flaman says it was Mervyn Lynch, a leader for years with Edmonton Catholic schools, who signaled a lack of resource material on genetic engineering for Alberta schools and suggested he write the book.
Form your conscience
"I think each of us, whether we are a Catholic or not, should try to seek the truth and understand the truth," he said in a recent interview. "I guess the book is meant to be a way for people to form their consciences and understand the truth in this area."
Flaman begins with a brief overview of major developments on genetics and genetic engineering and then discusses ethical issues related to the genetic engineering of plants and animals, touching on topics such as agribusiness, ecological concerns, biological warfare, genetically modified food, transgenic animals, cloning and patenting life forms.
The author goes on to discuss ethical issues related to the genetic engineering of human beings and analyses topics such as genetic testing, counselling, therapy, enhancement, cloning and eugenics.
In chapter 3, the author discusses major views on plant, animal and human life today and in chapter 4, he provides ethical analysis and reflection on areas of widespread agreement, as well as disagreement, related to genetics and values.
Each chapter of the book ends with intriguing discussion questions appropriate for teachers, students and lay people alike.
"Paul Flaman has composed a thorough and understandable explanation of contemporary developments in the field of genetic science," says Kevin O'Rourke, a professor of health care ethics at Loyola University in Chicago. "He deftly and accurately presents an evaluation of present and future technologies resulting from genetic engineering based on the perspective of Christian values and Catholic teaching."
While Flaman takes an ecumenical approach, he clearly supports Catholic teaching, arguing that while Catholic teaching may seem restrictive on genetic engineering issues, "it really shows an appreciation of a wider range of values such as the dignity of the human being, the sacredness of life, particularly human life created in the image of God."
The genetic engineering of plants and animals can involve advantages and Catholic thinkers, Flaman included, say it should be carefully followed through openness, analysis and controls, ensuring that it does not neglect respect for life or lead to exploitation.
But there is already cause for concern. As Flaman puts it, the genetic engineering of plants and animals may help solve world hunger, but it may also drive smaller farmers out of business and increase farmers' dependence on multinationals.
"For example, genetically engineered seeds which produce greater yields may drive smaller farmers out of business since these seeds are more expensive," he notes.
"Seeds engineered to resist certain herbicides, if farmers buy them, will result in the concentration of the agri-seeds and chemicals business in the hands of a few high-tech companies."
Moreover, some genetic engineering developments in wealthier countries could be devastating to certain Third World economies.
"For example, new means of producing vanilla and cocoa in factories in North America and Europe could be devastating to the economies of Madagascar and West Africa, respectively."
The answer to the problem, Flaman implies, is to put the welfare of human beings ahead of profits, exploitation and domination.
The author, like Pope John Paul, believes the goal of embryonic stem-cell research is a good goal because it may lead to cures for Parkinson's and other diseases.
The problem, he laments, is that the technique involves the manipulation and destruction of human embryos, which makes it ethically wrong.
"It needs to be kept in mind that the human embryo (or zygote or fetus), whether it results from normal in vivo fertilization or in vitro fertilization or cloning, is a human being," he says. "It should always be treated as a person with the basic rights of a person, including the right to life."
Stem cell research
Flaman supports research on stem-cells which are taken from human cord blood, bone marrow or adult tissues "because this research does not harm anyone."
On the issue of cloning humans, Flaman's opinion is decisive, arguing that producing human beings by cloning is immoral in itself.
"Like in vitro fertilization, cloning disassociates human procreation from its proper context, a fruit of the conjugal act within a loving marriage," he says.
"It also 'establishes the domination of technology over the origin and destiny of the human person' which is contrary to the dignity and equality common to embryonic human beings and other human beings."
Call for legislation
Flaman thinks Canada needs relevant legislation in the area of reproductive technologies because, as he puts it, "There are certain uses of these technologies that can be beneficial to human beings and also be violating the dignity of human beings or the dignity of human procreation.
"We don't need to push for everything we consider immoral to be a crime, but I think in a civilized society we should protect human beings from being exploited and destroyed (in the name of science)."